When you eat fish, you may also be eating a tiny piece of someone’s fleece sweatshirt or poly-blend socks: in a single wash of a fleece jacket, more than 250,000 microfibers can wash down the drain, and some of them can eventually make it into waterways. A new bag is designed to stop that pollution.
The Guppy Friend bag holds synthetic clothes in the laundry machine, catching 99% of the microfibers in a fine mesh. After a wash, you can throw out the fibers in the trash. The surface of the bag also helps reduce shedding, so clothes lose fewer fibers overall.
The creators run four outdoor apparel stores in Germany–selling their own brand of natural-fiber clothing, but also synthetic clothing from other brands. They realized that they had a problem.
“We had an interview for our website with a marine activist and were talking about marine pollution, and she reminded us that, ‘Well, you’re part of the problem, too,'” says Alexander Nolte, who co-owns the stores, called Langbrett, with Oliver Spies. “We realized she’s right; we can’t just pretend that we don’t know. Either we find a solution, or we have to stop selling these things.”
To better understand the problem, they tried washing a few clothes in the sink with filters. Even without a microscope, the tiny fibers were clearly visible.
“We talked to many experts with scientific backgrounds … and we came up with the idea [for the bag] in our favorite beer garden,” says Nolte. “That was an idea that was still good the next morning.”
Working with researchers, they experimented to find the right ratio of open and closed surfaces in the mesh. Water and soap had to be able to get inside, so the clothing could still get clean, without letting fibers out. They also experimented with the surface to help reduce friction on clothes.
Patagonia, which supports research on microfiber pollution, also helped run tests of the new bag design and a small grant to make it (Nolte and Spies also ran a successful Kickstarter campaign). After the design won an outdoor industry award, other companies wanted to buy the patent, but the designers didn’t want it to be branded.
“It’s not about marketing or being ahead of your competitors on this,” says Nolte. “You shouldn’t make money on a product that’s selling the problem and then also on one that is solving it.” The pair decided to establish a nonprofit, Stop Micro Waste, to distribute it.
The Kickstarter orders are about to ship; the designers made a final tweak of materials so the whole bag can be easily recycled. Online orders will be available soon, and customers can also send an email to preorder the bag.
The designers see it as an interim solution. “This is a means of communicating the problem,” says Nolte. “Once you have understood that there is a problem, you’re going to buy less and better, because you make a more educated choice. The next step would be to come up with ideas to re-engineer the textiles, because that’s not rocket science, I would say.”
When they began designing the bag, they learned that there wasn’t a standardized way to measure how much fiber loss a particular fabric had, so they created a test with researchers. Now, brands can use the same test to see which fabrics perform best, before clothes go to market.
Until clothes are redesigned, customers can use the bag to help prevent pollution from reaching aquatic animals (and, through the food chain, humans). “It’s very pragmatic, and you can use it right away,” says Nolte. “If you want to do something, you can start right there.”